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Review: LG SM90 (SM9000)

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With all the attention and spotlight directed towards LG's OLED TVs it is easy to forget that the South Korean company also has a full range of LCD TVs. We have taken the most affordable high-end model, SM90, with zone dimming capabilities in for review. SM90 is a member of the "NanoCell" range of LCD TVs, with features such as webOS 4.5 and a second generation Alpha 7 video processor as well as HDMI 2.1 ports and features: VRR (variable refresh rate), ALLM (auto low latency mode) and HFR (high frame rate).

SM90, also known as SM9000 or SM9010, is available in 49, 55, 65, 75, and 85 inch sizes in the US and Europe. We have the 65-inch model.


Price and retailers:

US retailer
UK retailer
DE retailer



First impressions

LG SM90 is an LCD TV with zone dimming capabilities, sometimes referred to as full array local dimming or FALD, and to accommodate the backlight system LG has made it thicker. It is still a decent-looking TV with a relatively slim profile but it is obviously not as razor thin as an OLED panel. The stand is coated in plastic with a metal-like look but more concerning is the fact that it is unstable, meaning that it reacts easily to vibrations. Our sample of the TV was not level either - it leaned to one side - so not a great first impression.

Ports are located around back and cables can be routed towards the bottom through a small compartment. Overall, LG has managed to make the back of the TV look clean and streamlined to ensure that it can be mounted closer to the wall than its OLED TVs (W series excluded). The socket panel is a mess and multiple ports point out directly towards the wall, which may complicate things if you are planning to wall mount the TV. LG please, we along with many others have pointed out this glaring issue for years now - fix it!

The LCD panel is covered in an anti-reflective film that at first glance looks like a removable film (like on new smartphones) but do not remove. Not all manufacturers manage to make these anti-reflective coatings look seamless edge-to-edge but unless you see a sticker on the TV asking you to remove the film, you should generally avoid peeling it off. After having reviewed Samsung's Q90, most other anti-reflective films appear unimpressive so even though SM90 manages to reduce light reflections the difference compared to Q90R is noticeable and significant.




User experience & features

LG emphasizes that it is still committed to webOS even though they have shifted marketing attention to "ThinQ" and "AI". This is version 4.5 of webOS and as usual LG refuses to bring the latest version of webOS to any previous TVs.

Operating system & smart TV

webOS now has "AI Preview"
We will not be covering all of the new features of webOS 4.5 here and we refer to our LG C9 review for further details. SM90 has the same webOS features as C9. Over the years, webOS has been polished and expanded in the number of ways to make it more competitive against other Smart TV platforms but there are no major changes compared to last years

The most obvious new feature this year is 'AI Preview' that pulls content from within streaming services to a new row in the menu. However, each streaming provider must take advantage of LG's API to make it work so we expect support to be limited for years to come. Apple AirPlay 2 and HomeKit are the two most exciting new features in LG's 2019 TV but we are still waiting for the software update to be released. At the same time, these two features serve as a reminder of how frustrating it can be that previous TVs with the same or more capable hardware do not receive software updates.

"AI" is one of the latest buzzwords and unfortunately it is often stretched to a point where it is meaningless. We have not even been able to get a clear answer as to what this "artificial intelligence" entails in LG TVs. Until there is some actual AI in TVs we suggest that TV makers stop referring to it as AI as it only serves to dilute the concept for everyone involved.

LG has implemented a system to identify third-party devices connected via HDMI but it is not as robust and seamless as Samsung's version. Even with Simplink (LG's name for HDMI CEC) activated, HDMI control is not as seamless as it could be, which unfortunately is the story of HDMI CEC. You never know exactly how it will work - and if it will work. This issue is not isolated to LG, though.

We experienced occasional stutter and lag when navigating the menus on SM90 and there is some ground to cover before Smart TVs can match the speed and feel of modern smartphones that are faster and smoother in operation.

The TV also come with voice capabilities as part of LG's 'ThinQ AI Voice' system. Here is an introduction to what Google Assistant in an LG TV can do:




Operation & sound

Like C9, SM90 comes with the regular 'Magic Remote' that can best be described as a Wii controller that controls an on-screen pointer. I have personally never been a fan of the interaction method as it demands higher concentration to navigate and control the TV. On the other hand some users seem to prefer it.

You can also use the left/right/up/down buttons to navigate but the cursor will reappear unless you have an unusually steady hand so it is practically impossible to avoid. Also, the OK button doubles as a scroll wheel with too much resistance so it can be hard to operate when you also need to press it. You may know the feeling from a computer mouse with a scroll wheel that doubles as the third mouse button. You would not want this button to be the primary input button.

Luckily, LG has not (yet?) equipped its remote control with a 'Rakuten TV' button. Perhaps due to the sheer amount of redundant buttons that already occupy the remote control, including buttons dedicated to Amazon, Netflix and "Movies", which are already three too many.

On a positive note, the remote has a nice form and fits comfortably in a hand. Still, it is not anywhere near as good as our favorite remote from Samsung.


LG SM90 review


The remote relies on Bluetooth so no direct line of sight to the TV is required. As mentioned, it can also control connected HDMI devices including game consoles (menus, not games). However, to control these devices the remote often relies on infrared so there must be a direct line of sight to peripherals that users often tend to hide in a cabinet or furniture.

We briefly mentioned 'AI Sound' earlier and it can occasionally improve the audio experience but audio quality is of course still limited by the hardware and the slim cabinet. We would characterize the speakers as above average for a TV but unless you connect an external system you will be hard pressed to find any TV with great speakers. For day-to-day use the speakers are probably adequate in many homes. Voices sound clear. The TV has support for Dolby Atmos but there is almost nothing to gain with a system like this so refrain from putting much value on the "Atmos" sticker on the box. The TV can also output Atmos from i.e. Netflix via HDMI.

Like LG's 2019 OLED TVs, SM90 is 'WiSA Ready' meaning that you can buy a WiSA-certified USB dongle to enable wireless TV audio with compatible speakers. We have not had access to one of these dongles so we cannot test hos it works but we have seen the system in action on a number of occasions and LG informs us that the dongle should be rolling out in shops now or very soon. The system supports up to 5.1-channel wireless surround but not Atmos. There are a handful of speakers with WiSA on the market but the selection is still limited to a few brands. One advantage of WiSA compared to some proprietary wireless audio systems is that it allows you to mix and match speakers from multiple brands.


Calibration

LG TVs come with myriad of picture modes to choose from and we can imagine that the average user will quickly lose enthusiasm and just go with the standard settings or one of the fancy-named pre-configured modes. Unfortunately, many of these picture modes are poor. See our measurements in the box to the right.

Several of the SDR picture modes use the TV's native extended color space, which is intended for HDR content only. This is an unfortunate starting point so we recommend that you switch to either 'ISF Expert Dark / Bright' or 'Technicolor Expert' for the most accurate picture. However, even in these modes you will have to make adjustments to picture settings in order to tone down sharpness and motion interpolation to acceptable levels.

We used 'ISF Expert Dark' as our calibration starting point and through a few adjustments with 2-point color settings we managed to bring SM90 largely in line with the picture reference for SDR. In HDR you are forced to go deeper or perform auto-calibration. LG's 2019 OLED and select NanoCell models now have a built-in pattern generator for CalMAN auto-calibration meaning that you no longer require an external - and expensive - pattern generator. SpectraCal has also launched a cheaper version of the CalMAN software specific to each TV brand.

We measured color gamut coverage on our sample of LG SM90 to 89% DCI-P3 (xy) / 65% Rec.2020 (xy), which is roughly the same as what Samsung Q70R achieved. You can see the results below.




Measurements

In our "measurements" section we include all measurements and our suggested calibration settings. If you want to learn more about our test methodology click here.

Note: We include calibration settings only for SDR, not HDR. For our calibration we have deactivated the ambient light sensor that automatically adjusts the backlight setting according to your environment. You may prefer to have it enabled.



LG SM90 review


Picture quality

On the show floors and at events, LG is usually directing the spotlight towards its OLED flagship TVs, not its LCD TVs. There are relatively few panel innovations in LG's LCD TVs (how far OLED has come in recent years is another subject) when compared to other manufacturers' LCD TVs. SM90 is the most affordable model in LG's 2019 "NanoCell" line-up with zone dimming capabilities, designed to improve contrast in contrast-poor IPS LCD panels. Another new feature this year is HDMI 2.1 but it appears that LG is trying to differentiate its best TVs from its "NanoCell" TVs simply by using another display panel (OLED vs. LCD) rather than trying to close the gap in picture quality between the two.

SM90 is not equipped with LG's most advanced Alpha 9 processor like the OLED models but rather a second generation Alpha 7 that has less processing power (unlike Alpha 9, it cannot do 4K HDR at 120Hz) and fewer features. On the other hand Alpha 9's additional capabilities are typically found in those picture enhancement algorithms that we often prefer to deactivate so the less capable processor may not be a dealbreaker.

Starting from the bottom with streaming video in low bitrate and SDR (standard dynamic range) - such as HBO - as well as low-quality TV broadcasts we immediately spotted one issue that typically requires us to pull out our test patterns. In dark scenes SM90 is crushing shadow details to a degree that we not often see in even mid-range TVs. As a result we also see a significant amounts of banding. Normally, we would need test patterns or challenging movie scenes to force TVs into these kinds of situations but SM90 struggles even in normal day-to-day viewing, mainly with low-bitrate video content where dark tones are heavily compressed to start with. Unfortunately, SM90 produces a cocktail of poor black levels (due to its IPS LCD panel) combined with banding in dark tones, leading to visible posterization (loss of detail in color transitions) and a green tint, especially in shadows.




The issue occurs with most SDR content but is exacerbated when watching low-bitrate - heavily compressed - video. Dark scenes were watchable when feeding a Blu-ray to SM90 but with low-quality streaming content, such as HBO's, it was quite honestly excruciating to sit in front of SM90. LG has recently implemented a 'Smooth Gradation' feature but it does not manage to alleviate the issue even at its highest setting. We were not able to eliminate the issue through calibration either, and adjusting contrast or brightness did not do much to help.

In the photo series below you see the same two Batman - The Dark Knight Rises scenes with a Blu-ray (1080p) and iTunes's 4K Dolby Vision version, respectively, as sources. Notice how in the first picture (1080p Blu-ray) there is visible posterization and green tint on the man's jacket, and how in the second scene (third picture) Catwoman's shoulder has turned green. No issues are observed with the 4K DV version from iTunes. Be aware that the two versions are color-graded differently so ignore other differences in color and tone.




We have presented our findings to LG who has promised to investigate. At the time of publication, we have yet to receive a formal statement from LG Korea or any other division.

When switching to HDR video, the issue disappears and gradients look "normal" and decent. However, with HDR content and its much wider dynamic range the limitations of the IPS LCD panel start to appear in earnest. As brightness increases, the already poor black levels turn grey.




SM90 is equipped with a LED backlight with zone dimming; 4 vertical and 12 horizontal for a total of 48 dimming zones, which is obviously too few to bring out specular highlights in true form. The combination of poor black levels and a very limited number of dimming zones create visible halos (blooming) in dark scenes and also tend to pollute the black bars when subtitles or bright objects in the lower or upper part of the picture appear.

You can see two photos, at different exposure levels, below. In actual use the blooming effect probably lies somewhere between these two examples.




SM90 can reach relatively high peak brightness levels of 550-1000 nits (for more measurements see our measurement table), which in terms of numbers suggest that it delivers decent HDR picture quality. However, in trying to reach those brightness levels SM90 raises black levels significantly so we end up with mixed results. The LED backlight also suffers from noticeable delay in trying to reach peak brightness, which also tricked our measurement equipment at first. The delay can be observed when the TV switches from a dark to bright scene where it is seen as a sudden burst of light happening a split second after the scene has changed.

Using SM90 in a bright environment or adding bias light behind the TV can help alleviate the effects of poor black levels to some degree.

Turning our attention to other aspects of picture quality, SM90's video processor handles upscaling as expected. Most modern TVs have good upscaling and the extra processing power is not really needed to take a SD and HD video and scaling it up to a 4K panel. Rather, added processing power is usually earmarked for picture enhancement algorithms. SM90 comes with the same input/output options as the more expensive OLED models, including HDMI 2.1 ports and features, ensures that SM90 can receive and handle future signal sources. LG has yet to include QMS (Quick Media Switching) as an officially supported feature but other than that LG says that eARC, ALLM (Auto Low Latency Mode), and VRR (variabel refresh rate) are supported. Learn more about these HDMI 2.1 features in the link below.

Also read: HDMI 2.1 finalized - 8K/10K resolution, variable refresh rate, eARC, new cable

LG TVs support HDR10, HLG, Dolby Vision and Advanced HDR by Technicolor (the latter is not in use). The company continues to shun its arch rival's HDR10+ format, arguing that it can achieve the same result by analyzing HDR10 video and applying dynamic tone-mapping.




SM90 offers the same calibration features as the more expensive 2019 models so advanced users have lots of calibration options and with the right equipment you can more or less hit spot-on color accuracy. Advanced users now also have access to EOTF adjustments, meaning that you can control the roll-off of the HDR EOTF curve near the TV's peak brightness level. However, you need the CalMAN software to do this so you either have to invest yourself or pay a professional calibrator with the right equipment, and have him demonstrate to you how it affects picture quality in actual use so you can pick your preferred compromise. There is no doubt that enthusiasts will value this level of control over the EOTF.

SM90's motion system, TruMotion, is relatively quick to add motion artefacts around moving objects in a scene, even at the lowest setting. Sony still offers the best LCD motion system and if you want SM90 to match Sony's best LCD TVs on motion resolution you must be prepared to accept visible motion artefacts. We also spotted occasional stutter in video and in our view LG's most recent OLED TVs deliver more convincing results.

Our sample of SM90 suffered from some minor backlight issues, including vignetting along the edges of the panel. However, it was rarely observed in use and we did not spot any issues with vertical banding either. On the other hand we often spotted halos around bright objects due to the limited number of dimming zones.




Historically, one of the primary incentives to pick LG's IPS LCD panels over VA LCD panels has been wider viewing angles, which is an inherent characteristic of this LCD panel type. As such choosing between VA and IPS was mostly an exercise in choosing between contrast versus viewing angles, where LG TVs delivered the latter.

However, with Samsung having greatly improved viewing angles on its top VA LCD panels, through sub-pixel rendering, it no longer this simple. SM90 offers wide viewing angles, as wide as you would expect from an IPS LCD panel, but not significantly better than Samsung's Q90R or Q85R. True, SM90 is considerably cheaper than both of those Samsung TVs but such technologies tend to trickle down to more affordable TVs over time. In the years to come, the difference between IPS and VA will probably not be as clear cut and LG's LCD TVs are not in an advantageous position right now.




HDMI 2.1 in a 4K TV will open new doors for devices such game consoles that are expected to be amongst the first to take advantage of the new features. At this time, Xbox One is the only game console to support HDMI VRR but we expect this to be more commonplace in the near future. LG has also marked itself as one of the leaders in bringing down input lag. We measured input lag in game mode on SM90 to less than 17 ms (4K HDR), ranking it as one of the TVs with lowest input lag. However, gaming in HDR will still be affected by limitations in LED zone dimming, including the delay in increasing and decreasing brightness, which can look distracting while gaming. Controller and screen response on the other hand are excellent.

A new feature this year, which we also commented on in our LG C9 review, is the ability to activate Game mode with any picture mode, meaning that you can abandon the 'Game' picture mode (along with its inaccurate color) in favor of the 'ISF Expert' picture mode and still benefit from the same low input lag levels. This ensures that the 99,99% of users without calibration equipment can now enjoy console games with accurate colors.

LG's 2019 TVs also support HDMI ALLM, which simply means that the TV can automatically switch into game mode when it detects a console game. It works with Xbox One X that also supports ALLM. PlayStation 4 does not support ALLM.


Conclusion

LG's webOS platform has a couple of new features this year, with the most user-facing change being a new content row called 'AI Preview'. We are still waiting for Apple to roll out AirPlay 2 and HomeKit to LG TV. These features are expected soon but did not arrive in time for our review.

In terms of picture quality, SM90 disappoints. The way it processes video in 8-bit SDR - all non-HDR video - is subpar and especially low-bitrate content from streaming services or channels suffer as a result, with green tint and heavy posterization in shadow details. These issues are not present with HDR content but the TV's limitations in zone dimming (48 zones only), contrast, and black levels, affect HDR picture quality, leading to visible halos (blooming) and limited dynamic range. These limitations also affect SDR picture quality but are more prominent in HDR.

As the only TV maker so far, LG has equipped many of its 4K TVs, including SM90, with HDMI 2.1 ports and features - a plus in our book. Next-gen game consoles that are expected to be available next year will embrace several of the HDMI 2.1 features and LG TVs should be ready. The company has also managed to reduce input lag on SM90 to one of the lowest levels we have measured on a TV to date.

The main advantage of the IPS panel type that LG is using in its LCD TVs is viewing angles but this year Samsung has, through sub-pixel rendering, managed to significantly widen viewing angles on the VA LCD panel type, catering to buyers who seek an alternative to OLED and worries of burn-in. This leaves LG with LCD TVs that are far from matching other top LCD TVs and its own OLED TVs. SM90 delivers mediocre HDR and SDR (channels, DVD, Blu-ray) picture quality and without any obvious advantages over the latest generation of VA LCD panels, LG's LCD TVs are being squeezed. Right now - and luckily for LG perhaps - only Samsung can offer this LCD alternative but unless LG dedicates more development ressources to its LCD TVs, it is hard to see them having a bright future. SM90 is not a TV that we can recommend.

!
Change in test parameters: Last year, we made a change to a test parameter that relates to the features score, following years of poor practice in the TV industry. Unless a manufacturer of a given "Smart TV" can provide FlatpanelsHD with assurance that the TV platform will be updated to the next major version, the feature score will be lowered by 10 points. We hope that our initiative can help highlight the problem, start a discussion, and change the practice.

LG has not been able to give us such a guarantee for webOS.

Price and retailers:

US retailer
UK retailer
DE retailer


HDMI 2.1 ports & features
Low input lag
First 4K TV with wide VRR range
Wide viewing angles for LCD


Mediocre SDR performance
Poor blacks
Rear-facing ports
webOS not receiving updates








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